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Academic Rodeo Team Ropes 1st Prize

Education: A little superstition and a lot of preparation help Somis students beat competitors from around the state at county fair event.


For 12-year-old Elizabeth Best, it's eating a sugary wad of cotton candy. For 14-year-old Allison Kanny, it's slurping an ice-cold cherry slush. And for 13-year-old Alysia Sanchez, it's making sure her mom stays home.

Call it superstition, but for members of Mesa Union School's Academic Rodeo team, these quirky pre-competition rituals Saturday spelled W-I-N.

The six-member team from the Somis school became the California State Academic Rodeo champions after competing at the Ventura County Fair in mind-bending contests--including timed quizzes and a spelling bee--against three other teams from around the state.

Those schools--Santa Barbara Junior High School, Lincoln Middle School of Alameda County and Jordan Middle School of Burbank--came to Ventura's Seaside Park after winning competitions at their county fairs.

Mesa Union took first place in the countywide academic rodeo last weekend against seven other Ventura County teams.

Along with a statuette of "The Thinker," first-place medals and oversized blue ribbons, the Mesa Union students also each received $100 cash, and their school will receive a check for $2,500.

"My mom says I should invest [the prize money] in Amgen stock. But I think I'll spend half and save half," said Elizabeth of Camarillo whose phonetic fortitude last weekend in the spelling bee helped push the team to the top. Amgen, the Thousand Oaks-based biotechnology company, was the event's sponsor.

The San Fernando Valley team won second place, and members will take home $75 apiece and $1,500 for their school. Santa Barbara Junior High took the third-place prize of $50 for each team member and $1,000 for the school. And members of the Lincoln Middle School team will take home $25 each and $500 for their school.

The state championship is the brainchild of Hal Beaver, Academic Rodeo superintendent for the county fair, which ends today. This is the third year Ventura County teams have hosted the championship.

"I literally woke up one morning and just thought it would be nice for the kids to bring other teams in and compete," Beaver said.

He said he spends all year collecting the nearly 1,000 trivia questions used in the two competitions--drawing from books, newspapers, magazines and television.

For Saturday's contestants, Beaver's collection of brain-twisters and 25-cent words produced enough anxiety to fuel an entire season of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"

But the Mesa Union students' ability to perform under the intense pressure would have made "Millionaire" host Regis Philbin proud.

Take, for instance, Rudy Ramirez, 14, of Oxnard, who clicked off the capitals of obscure countries as easily as if he were listing the names of his favorite video games.

"I've always been interested in geography," said the teen, who claims to spend much of his time reading road maps and almanacs.

Or Benjamin Dwork, 12, of Camarillo, who was the last kid standing after a particularly devastating spelling-bee round. Even "unpersuadable" didn't faze him.

"I almost put an 'e' in there," he said, clearly relieved he stuck with his gut instincts.

Alysia barred her mother from Saturday's competition for fear her presence would make the young contestant too nervous. (And because her mom's absence seemed to work in the team's favor last weekend.)

Alysia said she answered one question correctly, thanks to a habit of reading the first few lines of books in the library.

The question was, "Who is the narrator in the novel 'Moby Dick'?" The answer, of course, "Ishmael."

The team spent the last four weeks preparing, meeting frequently to pore over textbooks, newspapers and "Trivial Pursuit" game cards, said Joann Dwork, Benjamin's mother, a social-studies teacher at Mesa Union and the team's sponsor.

Was it worth it?

"I think it's a nice recognition for the kids who work really hard academically," she said. "They get to be the center of attention."

And that's her final answer.

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